Wantagh wrestling coach Paul Gillespie has had powerful influence on young people
Most of the time there is no fanfare, which makes high school coaches easy to overlook. But the love for Wantagh coach Paul Gillespie runs deep through the fabric of the Long Island wrestling community.
He has performed life-altering work for decades. His legacy will reflect a powerful influence on young people and how he guided them to change and success.
Gillespie led Wantagh to another Nassau Division I sectional title and the county dual meet championship this winter. Wantagh finished with a Long Island-record 32-1 dual meet record, the only loss coming against state champion Minisink Valley in a semifinal.
He surpassed the 500-win milestone and now has a Nassau record 513 dual meet wins. The man is so much more than the wins and losses. He is the Dean of Long Island wrestling and at 71 years old still going strong. He has impacted the lives of hundreds of wrestlers.
"He changed my life forever," said Albeiro Palacio, who was a three-time New York State champion for Long Beach between 1980-82. "Life is good. If it wasn’t for Coach Gillespie I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. He was an inspiration to me and kept all of us on track and out of trouble. He was like our father. He sacrificed a lot of his own time to spend with us and turn us into champions and more importantly good men."
Palacio said he and his two brothers moved to Long Beach with their mother from their homeland in Colombia, South America. He said the timing coincided with Gillespie’s arrival in the Long Beach community, which changed their lives forever.
"My dad and two uncles were killed in a wave of violence in Colombia," Palacio said. "The drug cartels led by the overlord Pablo Escobar had taken over our hometown and we needed to get out. If my mother hadn’t moved me and my brothers, we’d either be dead or in jail. I used to fight every day in school. So wrestling was the best thing that ever happened to us. We got a role model in Coach Gillespie and a father figure."
Gillespie spent most of his coaching career in Long Beach from 1978-1997. He turned a doormat program into an instant winner with tough kids like the Palacio brothers.
"We were ranked 54th of the 56 teams in Nassau in his first year," Palacio said. "And we finished fourth in the county with him as our coach. Eventually we became a powerhouse."
Gillespie was a driving force behind the Long Beach program. He combed the halls of the middle school and high school looking for potential wrestlers.
"I found so many tough kids that just needed a little love and direction to help build self-confidence," Gillespie said. "I’d build a positive relationship where they’d trust what we were doing and fully commit to the process. It’s worked for a long time."
Gillespie, who also works as a lifeguard in Long Beach for the past 53 years and chief lifeguard for 15, said the coaching journey has taken him from Long Beach to a short stint in Oceanside and ultimately the final stop at Wantagh. His sidekick, assistant coach Reggie Jones Jr., has been with him for 27 years.
"I took off a few years there to focus on my son P.J." he said. "There’s nothing like traveling to tournaments with your son and building that bond. That time with family is irreplaceable." Gillespie’s wife Jeannine of 36 years, was also instrumental in his success, fully supportive of his devotion to his wrestlers.
"We had three kids and they’re all doing very well," Gillespie said. "I’m so proud of P.J. and my two girls, Virginia and Annalee."
Perhaps his biggest find came in the hallways of the Long Beach middle school in 1995.
"I told Coach that there’s a kid riding around town on his bike and beating up all the other kids," said Long Beach assistant coach Leo Palacio. "He’s new in the community, a foster child. He looks like trouble, walks around with his shirt off."
Gillespie located Jon Masa on the school playground and convinced him to channel his energy into wrestling.
"Jon didn’t have a father, or a mother, and was dumped into the foster care system at a very young age and he had a lot of anger," Gillespie recalled. "He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn had no direction in life as he had been in 14 foster homes. He was a super tough kid, and my wife helped me straighten his ass out, as he lived with us for a year."
Masa said he didn’t even know anything about wrestling when Gillespie introduced him to the sport and set him on the right path.
"He set a lot of people on the right track," said Masa, who was a National High School wrestling champion before wrestling at Hofstra. "I had failed some classes in school, and was ineligible for wrestling. Coach Gillespie went into the district office and requested I get a second chance. My life could have gone either way had he not stepped in. I needed wrestling, the discipline that comes with the sport and the structure of a team environment. It’s all I had. It was the turning point in my life."
Masa was a clear-cut example of how the care of a coach and the sport of wrestling saved his life.
"Jon Masa would not have made it," said Leo Palacio. "It was a life changing decision when the school allowed him to wrestle. But had the coach not advocated for him, who knows where Jon would have been. Coach taught him great life skills, and advice to do the right thing and steered him in the right direction."
Masa, who lives in Franklin Square and works for a national real estate developer, graduated from Long Beach in 2000 and earned his business degree at Hofstra in 2006. The three-time NCAA Division I national place-winner was recently inducted into the Hofstra University Athletic Hall of Fame
"His speech brought me to tears," Gillespie said. "He was so sincere and talked about what I did for him. He was a kid no one thought would ever make it. He turned out to have a wonderful life with a happy marriage and three baby girls."
"Gillespie’s impact on my life was tremendous," Masa said. "I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for him. All the rides to tournaments and all the meals and he never asked for anything in return."
Gillespie was named by the National Wrestling Coaches Association as the National Coach of the Year in 2013 when Wantagh went undefeated. In 2018, he coached two more national champions in Justin Vines (132 pounds) and Jon Loew (190 pounds).
He’s coached 12 state champions, including heavyweight Scotty Graham, who went onto to play football at Ohio State before enjoying a six-year NFL career with Minnesota. Graham now works as an assistant coach for Arizona, in his 20th year in the NFL.
Gillespie’s resume includes 23 Nassau Conference titles, 13 Nassau dual meet champions and 64 individual Nassau champions and sharing a state record of 53 state place-winners with Huntington’s coaching icon Lou Giani.
"As long as I’m kicking, I’m coaching," Gillespie said, laughing. "I take care of myself, go to the gym, eat healthy and get enough rest every night. My wife takes care of me and lets me continue to do what I love. And for as long as I have my health the kids will have the old coach."
"He built a wrestling empire at Long Beach and passed it onto Ray Adams and Leo Palacio," Masa said. "He’s the patriarch of Long Beach wrestling - a very special man."